The Castle of Otranto was meant as a love letter to the past; instead, it inspired the future. The book’s setting—an ancient castle filled with sinister happenings, depraved nobles, and a haunting sense of loss—proved astonishingly popular, inspiring the Gothic literary movement. Books as diverse as Frankenstein, Titus Groan, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula, Northanger Abbey, A Rebours, Interview with the Vampire, the House of Leaves, and even Harry Potter all bear the mark of Otranto and its visions of stone and stain-glass.
The book’s historical setting is loose. Walpole was interested in the High Middle Ages but knew little about them, and Otranto’s castle is haunted by anachronisms as well as ghosts. Characters duel with fencing sabres, which wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years. The confrontation between Manfred and Theodore is interrupted by the arrival of the “Marquis of Vicenza“, but the title of marquis/marquess/marchese was not used in Italy in the period.
In a literal sense Walpole lived closer to the Middle Ages than we do, but in a scholastic sense he lived further away. Modern medievalists have access to thousands of primary sources, scanned and translated and annotated, but in the 18th century Walpole was limited to whatever books he had in his personal library (or that of Cambridge University, where he studied). 21st century technology gives us a high-powered telescope back to the past; Walpole was forced to peer through cracked, foggy spectacles. He himself complained about the poverty of the existing scholarship. “…The original evidence is wondrous slender.”
But although Otranto never echoes the Middle Ages very strongly, this too became a Gothic hallmark. The genre has a grand, dislocated effect—part history, part myth, part fairytale, part nightmare—that seems to float outside history. It has the slippery heat of an opium dream; the marmoreal coldness of a stone gargoyle. 20th century authors such as MR James and Shirley Jackson were not above turning out minimally-updated variants of the Otranto formula: tense and fraught tales of things that go bump in the night.
The story: despotic tyrant Manfred loses his son in a tragic and absurd accident, on the day the boy was to marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom. He attempts to marry the girl himself, and consummate their nuptials on the spot (perhaps he was motivated by more than desire to preserve his bloodline), but she escapes, leading him on a chase through the vaults of Castle Otranto. He sees things that are not real, and hears creaking sounds when there’s nothing that could be making them. Hanging over this is an ancient prophecy; “”that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it””. Manfred is doomed. The past—represented by the ancient Otranto castle—is reaching towards him, and it will take from him everything he has.
This is a popular (and perhaps central) Gothic idea: that houses and dynasties, however ancient and grand, all eventually die. Throw a ball in the air, and it will fall. Throw a cathedral spire into the air, and it will fall. Even when the spire is lofted atop a mighty edifice arches, gables, tympanums, archivolts, balustrades, and buttresses, even if it’s sanctified by prayers and the blood and bones of saints, it will still fall. That’s the way of things: they come crashing down. Gravity is inescapable, as is the entropy behind it, and the only certainty is collapse. Gothicism is the literature of dust.
Walpole is modern in his outlook. He plays metafictional games, framing the book as a “lost work” that he is the translator of (needless to say, several of his contemporaries actually thought this was true!). Amusingly, he throws critical brickbats at his own work.
“It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work. More impartial readers may not be so much struck with the beauties of this piece as I was. Yet I am not blind to my author’s defects. I could wish he had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this: that “the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.” I doubt whether, in his time, any more than at present, ambition curbed its appetite of dominion from the dread of so remote a punishment. And yet this moral is weakened by that less direct insinuation, that even such anathema may be diverted by devotion to St. Nicholas. Here the interest of the Monk plainly gets the better of the judgment of the author. However, with all its faults, I have no doubt but the English reader will be pleased with a sight of this performance.”
The story is funny—when and why did Gothic horror decide to be grim and humorless? The scenes where Manfred upbraids his slow-witted castle guards are almost out of Blackadder, and elsewhere Walpole is nearly as pithy and quotable as Oscar Wilde. “A bystander often sees more of the game than those that play”. Again, he appears to be taking the piss out of himself. The “translator” notes that the story contains “no bombast, no similes, flowers, digressions, or unnecessary descriptions.” This is the same story that has hilarious Romantic camp like “The gentle maid, whose hapless tale / these melancholy pages speak; / say, gracious lady, shall she fail / To draw the tear a down from thy cheek?”
Most literary fads are associated with eras, intellectuals, social movements, and locations. Gothicism is somewhat unique in that’s associated with architecture. Although Gothic books can be set anywhere (the memorable Vathek by William Beckford has a Middle East locale), the genre’s most at home in huge, ornate castles.
Why are castles the default Gothic setting? They’re creepy. They’re also useful to the writer. They can plausibly contain secret passages, hidden vaults, deathtraps, dungeons, and so on. And they’re isolated. A castle’s high walls don’t just keep outsiders out, they keep insiders in, and in many Gothic tales they can seem like prisons. The BBC comedy Fawlty Towers derived much of its humor from the gathering tension of these people stuck inside a hotel. It’s a pressure cooker that you know is going to explode. Likewise, the best gothic novels induce a feeling of suffocating tension. And it’s all because of of the castles. It’s like you’re falling into a pit while wearing a stiff suit of armor, unable to move or see or breathe.
It’s pointless recommending Otranto. That presumes it’s possible to not read it, which it isn’t. You’ve already read most of it in the form of countless spiritual descendants. This book is inescapable, standing against the literary horizon like its titular castle:$i;?>
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